The action was routine. Practice after practice, game after game, senior Ryan Vesce had made countless passes to former teammate Sam Paolini ’03. The outcome this time, however, was special. Paolini scored, giving Vesce an assist and a place in the Cornell record books.
With his assist during the first round of last season’s NCAA tournament, Vesce became just the 43rd Cornellian to record 100 points and the first junior to do so since Joe Nieuwendyk ’88. Still, while Vesce considers the moment special, in his mind, it’s not the crowning achievement of his collegiate career.
“Going to the final four last year, having our team be a contender at the national level is something that Cornell hasn’t seen in sometime,” said Vesce. “That was definitely the most memorable experience of my three years.”
For Vesce, however, the semifinal 3-2 loss to UNH isn’t just a memorable experience, it’s also served as motivation for his senior season. Head coach Mike Schafer ’86 recalls it as being a spark just days after the loss, when he found Vesce and current senior assistant captain Ben Wallace in the weight room.
“After we lost to UNH last year, coming in here on a Monday, and they’ve gone through one of the longest seasons of Cornell hockey, and there they are in the weight room,” said Schafer. “They’re not supposed to be there, and they’re sneaking into the weight room.”
Vesce remembered it as well.
“Maybe it was aggravated, maybe we couldn’t wait to get going,” he said “When you come home after a loss like that you just have to get out and do stuff, and there’s nothing better to do than get out and work on your game for the next season.
“I was obviously disappointed with how the season ended on that note, one game away from the national championship game,” he added. “The thing that drove us and kept us motivated was working hard and getting back into the season.”
Vesce would like to turn his and the team’s frequent trips to the weight room into frequent trips somewhere else, most notably the NCAA tournament’s championship game.
“We want to get back to that place and make it even further. Winning the ECAC was one of the most memorable experiences of my life, but after you win it, you move on and you’re playing for a national title. We still didn’t win our last game, and we won’t be satisfied until then.”
And so Vesce’s final season begins, with the team hunting for its first national title since 1970. Yet while the final leg of his journey starts tonight, the senior’s story starts miles away from Ithaca, in of all places, an ice rink.
Hailing from Long Island, the lacrosse hotbed of New York State, Vesce will agree that his choice of sports was different from most of his neighbors. For him, though, hockey was all in the family.
“My brother started playing hockey when he was six, and I was just around the rink. That’s how it got started,” he recalls.
From there, a star grew. Vesce’s pre-Cornell career included playing for the New York Apple Core of the EJHL, where he led the team in scoring during the 1999-2000 season with 28 goals and 31 assists for 59 total points. His efforts on the ice spoke for themselves, earning him league all-star honors.
Still, Vesce had bigger choices to make while playing in the EJHL than whether to pass left or right. He was being courted by two Ivy League schools: Cornell and Yale.
“Basically it came down to Yale and here as my two final choices, and the atmosphere of Lynah Rink was what took me over and made me commit to Cornell,” he said. “There’s just nowhere like this in the country.”
Vesce came to campus the following year as a freshman. He scored his first goal against Clarkson in November, and a banner year soon followed. The forward finished his rookie season second on the team in scoring with 20 assists and seven goals; his sophomore year was similar as Vesce finished with 30 points on 10 goals and 20 assists. He broke out last year, recording a total of 45 points on 19 goals and 26 assists, and as Vesce and his coaches will tell you, the difference between seasons doesn’t come from hitting the weights. Instead it comes from hitting the ice.
“Ryan has paid the price and worked very hard,” said Schafer. “He went to a skating school out in British Columbia between his sophomore and junior year. It really impressed on him that he could continue to improve as a hockey player.”
“I wanted to improve my stride,” he said. “Being a small player, I think that it’s important to be a step faster than I was my first two years at Cornell. I wanted to improve my stride, become a better skater and it opened up a lot of chances for me last year, using my speed.”
In Schafer’s eyes, Vesce’s attendance at skating camp isn’t just a sign of his dedication to the Cornell program, it’s also something that sets the senior apart from the rest of the league.
“A lot of athletes want to become a better skater … but they don’t pay attention to the day-in, day-out details of doing that,” Schafer said. “Ryan pays attention. He’s been great at knowing he had to shoot the puck harder and skate faster in order for him to be a better Division I hockey player, and he’s done that. He works on it constantly, he pays daily attention to it, and he deserves all the credit in the world.”
Dedication and improvement have also put Vesce into an elite group. In Schafer’s mind, the forward is one of two constants this year for the Red.
“If you want to talk about guys who are penciled in, Ryan Vesce is penciled in,” Schafer said. “He’s proven it over and over and over again.”
Yet while Vesce has proven himself to the coaching staff, he may not have done so to the rest of the nation. Schafer will be the first to tell you his star senior forward doesn’t get enough respect.
“Ryan obviously has been on special teams, power play, penalty kill, five on five, a big time face off guy — I’ve said it to many people, I think he’s the most underrated forward in the country. I just don’t think he ever gets the recognition he deserves and I’m sure he’ll be out to prove that here in his senior year.”
In his mind, however, Vesce feels he’s already proven enough to the people that matter.
“Those comments, I don’t really look at them or they don’t bother me at all,” he said. “People have their opinions, but the opinions that matter to me are my coaching staff and my teammates. If I have 26 guys on our team thinking I’m a pretty good player, that’s fine by me.”
One sign that those 26 guys already think so can be found on Vesce’s uniform. Fans will notice the “C” he wears this year as the team’s captain, an honor signifying his hard work and dedication to Cornell hockey. It’s also an honor that shows his teammates think of him as a leader, something Schafer already knew.
“If you’re going to be a captain or a leader of a business … there’s certain criteria that that person has to have. One, there just needs to be a certain kind of work ethic that exists there in order to lead in the proper way.”
It’s a work ethic Schafer knows Vesce and Wallace both share as team leaders.
“Both of them have tremendous work ethic and both of them have to be backed off,” Schafer said. “They work so hard you have to ban them from the weight room or ban them from the ice.”
But the work ethic isn’t just limited to Vesce or his assistant captain Wallace, it’s something that other players on the team have as well. According to Vesce, that’s made his job as captain a little bit easier.
“It wasn’t like I was by myself in this. There were a lot of guys who stepped up this summer, made the commitment to stay and worked extremely hard to improve their game,” he said. “When you have that kind of commitment from the majority of the team before the season starts, it’s pretty
easy to flow right into the season and have guys the young guys look up to, not just me.”
Which leaves Vesce to do what he does best — prepare for and play the game of hockey.
Before each game, he has a set routine. After he’s prepared physically by stretching and biking to loosen up his legs, he starts his mental preparation.
“I like to be alone for some time and look at the ice and visualize what’s going on, me making plays on the power play and stuff like that,” he said. “When it does happen in the game, then it’s just reaction after that.”
This season, fans will be able to see Vesce in action on the ice. Those who arrive early, however, will see him prepare for it. Vesce will be by the glass, visualizing his and his teammate’s next big play, visualizing the play that gets them one step closer to an NCAA championship.
Archived article by Matthew Janiga